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Cancer survivor Raquel Gomez: ‘Nobody’s gonna take my smile away from my face’

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Joys and worries – that’s how Raquel Gomez remembers 2013. It’s the year her second grandchild was born. The year her son made her cry with happiness because he got out of a gang. The year she proudly became an American citizen. And the year she was diagnosed with breast cancer.

She was doing a self-exam in the shower one weekend when she found blood coming out of her right nipple. Puzzled, she looked at her bra and saw a few spots there too. So she kept pressing, and more old, burgundy-colored blood kept dripping. She didn’t have anyone else around, so she asked her son what to do.

He told her he would find out but also warned her not to search symptoms on the Internet.

“It made me more worried,” she said.

The next day, she told her sister-in-law, who also advised her to stay offline. By the middle of the day, they both called her and said she needed to make a doctor’s appointment on Monday.

The doctor said more tests were needed but that she shouldn’t worry. She asked him at least to say if her symptom was bad or good.

“Not to scare you, but it’s bad,” he said. “But I have to know how bad it is.”

A biopsy confirmed that it was cancer. Hers wasn’t the hereditary type. Along with her doctor, Gomez believes that stress made her body more vulnerable to the disease. At the time, she was separating from her husband, and her son was into gang life. She didn’t have anyone else close to her so she could vent.

“It was like three years, really heavy for me,” she said. “A lot of problems with my ex and my two kids. … I was getting mad a lot, and I don’t let it go.”

She underwent surgery in July 2013, and it caught the disease early. A full mastectomy wasn’t required, so her surgeon only removed a small amount of breast tissue and some lymph nodes. She had more than a month of radiation and is now four years into a five-year regimen of taking Tamoxifen as a preventive drug.

The diagnosis and the rigors of treatment initially worried her because she was the only breadwinner for her family, which included her teen daughter, her son, herself and a toddler granddaughter.

“So when they said cancer – okay, I got cancer. But I have to be here.” Gomez tapped the arm of her chair on the front porch of Bartlett Nursery, where she’s been employed for years. She continued, “Because I need my paycheck. It was the only income to the house, and we need diapers and everything.”

She kept working somehow. After her surgery, the necessary radiation treatment was brutal.

“It’s ugly,” she said. “It’s really bad.”

The breast tissue turned red and then blackened. As the skin dried and cracked, pieces fell off. It felt like she was being pulled apart, Gomez said. “It was the worst thing I ever had.”

She shares the ugly reality today for a positive reason – to urge other people to do self checks, have regular mammograms and get annual checkups. Don’t ignore symptoms, and get help. Do what you can to minimize your chances of developing breast cancer.

She said she survived breast cancer with help from family, including a niece who came nightly after work to clean and dress her wounds from the treatment. “I love her,” Gomez said.

Her sister-in-law and son took her to doctor’s appointments, and two friends and a brother helped in other ways and kept her spirits up. One friend just handed her $100 during that time period, and the other showed up with supplies for the grandchildren.

By then, she had two grandchildren, and focusing on them helped. Taking care of them kept her from dwelling on the cancer, and needing to make money for everyone propelled her to her workplace, where she didn’t focus on her problems.

“You don’t stay home at your house and say, ‘Oh, I’m gonna die. I got cancer.’ You don’t. You go to work,” she said.

A bright spot during her treatment was how her son changed his life. He knew that it was her deepest wish for him to get out of his gang. Remembering that time period, Gomez’s voice broke as she added, “I know what gangs mean – killing, dying, jail.”

One day, he came home with a shoe-sized bruise on the side of his face and deep bruises all over his body where he’d been kicked many times. “And he looked at me and said, ‘Mama, you got your wish come true.’ And I said what? And he said, ‘I’m out.’ It made me cry.”

Gomez’s eyes brimmed just recalling the story. “It was my best day. … It was heavy to see him like that, but it was happy too.”

He told her, “I know what you’re going through. And I don’t want to give you no more problems.”

Her mother was also affected but in a different way. Her mother cried daily over the phone and passed along depressing news of others who died from cancer. By 2014, Gomez was well enough to travel despite lingering pain, so she and her family took a surprise trip to Mexico and arrived at her mother’s doorstep around 7 a.m.

Her mother opened the door to find Gomez standing there, smiling, with a grandchild in each arm. “I said, ‘I’m here, and this is my grandbabies. I’m fine, and I’m gonna be okay.”

Today, Gomez continues to thrive. She also continues to learn about releasing anger and worries so she can focus on joys. She sees progress even though it’s not easy. But she’s a strong woman and she is a survivor.

Gomez continued, “Nobody’s gonna take my smile away from my face.”